We already know what the biggest restaurant trend of 2008 was; let's not draw out the agony — it was identical to the biggest banking trend, auto trend, friends-of-Bernard-Madoff trend, newspaper trend, and retail sales trend: If you didn't lose money this year, there's something wrong with you. Unless you're a psychic or a palm-reader — I hear business is booming in that field. Yessir, the economy's in the crapper and this is hardly news. But what has amazed me, as I ate my way through an increasingly financially dismal 2008, is how great the food was. In six or seven years of South Florida restaurant reviewing, 2008 was handily the most scrumptious 12-month stretch so far. Across the cheese board, from glitzy corporate stars like the new China Grill in Lauderdale to modest little chef-driven bistros such as Dolce de Palma in West Palm, the food being dished in South Florida is more delicious than ever. Capitalism may be under siege, but we can still say that tooth-and-claw competition drives up quality. It may be fear of bankruptcy that's spurring chefs and restaurateurs to work so hard and pay such meticulous attention: Mediocre just isn't going to cut it. Serve your customers sub-par parpardelle, and you'll be mowed down before you can say Grim Reaper.
Spud Love. The economy has forced local chefs to do more with less. Hence, 2008 in South Florida was the year of the potato, a cheap, ubiquitous, and highly malleable vegetable. Thank god U.S. potato farmers didn't get hit with blight, because like the Irish of the 1840s we would have suffered mass famine. But there was plenty of the starchy tuber to feed us all: We ate our fries sliced matchstick thin (steak frites made a huge splash: see France, below); we gobbled up the skins crisped and dotted with crème fraîche, caviar, and bacon (Lola's on Harrison); we had them whipped and deep fried in truffle oil and served as crunchy pyramids (Strip House); chipped with a side of onion dip (Beach House Bistro); formed into tots and tossed in more truffle oil (Cut 432); we ate them the old-fashioned way: gratinéed with lots of cream and butter (Sugar 'n' Spice). South Florida chefs fell in love with the spud this year, and they'd evidently all gotten mandolines for their birthdays, because the homemade chips were falling where they may (Yolo, Smith & Jones, etc.)
France. 2008 was also the year we finally succumbed to the importunities of Pepé le Pew. French food has been seriously out of fashion since Paris declined to partner with us in a pointless and expensive Middle Eastern war (soooo borrrring). But even before that, where our parents worshipped Julia Child, sucked down bottles of Bordeaux, and wore Chanel perfume and Hermes scarves — we're the Batali generation, all about Italy. Thanks, perhaps, to the influence of Mad Men, a retro rage has swept the nation and settled happily in SoFla, including a maddening desire to eat crepes, bouillabaisse, steak frites, and coq au vin. New French restaurants in our vicinity include Metronome, Pistache, Paris Café, and Sugar 'n' Spice.
Comfort Food (see France, and Spud). Meatloaf is back on the menu, along with pot roast, roast chicken, barbecued everything, grilled cheese sandwiches, Thanksgiving dinner served every day, cookies and milk, round-the-clock breakfast, mac and cheese, chocolate pudding, and onion rings presented on a pole. Hot dogs have replaced calamari as the restaurant go-to dish. And our waistlines are none the waspier.
Wood fired. (Also, Coal fired). Any restaurant without a cheerily ferocious wood fire burning somewhere was seriously disadvantaged this year. Wood-burning ovens at some of our newer restaurants are turning out roasted chops, char grilled fish, seared oysters, and even fire-basted langoustines (Bova Prime, Valentino's, Forté di Asprinio, Spoto's Oakwood Grill, Cut 432, da Campo Osteria, and a slew of new steak houses). Related is the happy forward march of the coal-burning oven to South Florida, all the better to blacken the crusts of our pizzas and flatbreads (Carolina's, a greatly expanded Anthony's chain, Giovanni's, Fire Rock, and the new outpost of Vic & Angelo's are among our more recent acquisitions).
Celebrity chefs. Sorta. Celeb chefs arrived this year like a flock of carpetbaggers, and some turned right around and headed out again. Most notoriously, Top Chef's Stephen Asprinio opened the excellent Forté in West Palm Beach in early 2008 and was unceremoniously booted from his namesake restaurant before he could catch a glimpse of 2009. Other famous restaurant types to lend their names to new restaurants included Bostonian Todd English and New Yorker Jeffrey Chodorow in Fort Lauderdale (da Campo Osteria, China Grill) and Masahara Marimoto at the Boca Resort.
Slow Food. The snail has finally crawled into port, leaving an oozy trail from Piedmont to Broward. Anybody who attended the Slow Food Glades to Coast dinner at Café Boulud in Palm Beach a couple of weeks ago left glad in the certainty that this worldwide phenomenon, a movement started by Carlo Petrini to protest the opening of McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome, is off to a ripping South Florida start. The dinner at Boulud, organized by Diane Campion and cooked by chef Zach Bell and patissier Matthew Petersen with biodynamic wine pairings provided by Henry Davis Organic Wines, focused on the local and sustainable, including Florida farm-raised sturgeon and pastured lamb, hydroponic tomatoes from Lake Worth, eggplant from Loxahatchee, and citrus from Lantana. There are now three chapters of Slow Food USA in south Florida: Miami, Glades to Coast (covering Broward and Palm Beach), and Treasure Coast (north of West Palm), and they're organizing the most innovative and interesting gourmet events around.
Personal epiphanies. I learned a lot about food this year, and not all of it was good. Among the insights: Fresh fish is in deep, deep dudgeon. Among our heavily endangered locals you can count grouper, Atlantic sturgeon, and several species of bass. We shouldn't be eating any of it. Nor should we be sucking down any tuna, Atlantic cod, halibut, orange roughy, or farmed shrimp and salmon. True fish lovers will feed low on the food chain: clams, oysters, jellyfish, sardines, anchovies, and squid are all solid choices. South Florida chefs are way behind the curve: They ought to suspend serving endangered species, if we hope our kids will ever taste a fried grouper sandwich, and start experimenting with sustainable seafood. Nix the toro, Marimoto!
Secondly, we've got the vodka blahs. Broward and Palm Beach cocktail whizzes really hit their stride this year — I've tasted drinks infused with roses and elderflower, or garnished with homemade maraschino cherries and jalapeño peppers. But too many barkeeps, out of laziness or for the sake of convenience, are vodka-dependent to the point of coma. It's those damn potatoes again! Yes, you can infuse vodka with just about any flavoring, but most other good quality liquors offer far more complexity of flavor. More gin, bourbon, absinthe, and 10 Cane Rum would go a long way toward putting BPB on the mixology map — to say nothing of homebrewed bitters.
And: Décor is a bore. The days of the culinary circus act may be drawing to a close. Who's going to spend millions on water walls and cathedral ceilings these days? We're probably going to see new openings trending toward the smaller and cozier in 2009 as restaurants get more serious about the food they're serving and less beholden to their interior designers. In this, we'll be following Manhattan, where the most interesting boîtes do little more than slap on a coat of whitewash and give the terrazzo floors a once-over with Johnson wax. Rule of thumb: There's an inverse pleasure ratio between the eye-candy and the amuse bouche.
I'm bullish on dining in 2009 because in the absence of cash, things are bound to get creative. South Florida restaurateurs are a resilient bunch, and no matter what happens to our retirement funds, we still gotta eat. I'm looking forward to lots of cheap lobster (there's a national glut), braised shanks and butter-fried organs (smart chefs are going to be using everything but the squeal next year), local produce, and wines from places you never knew could grow a grape (Missouri, anyone? Great Britain?). Here's a charm for the new year: May we live in edible times.